Delhi-basedÂ filmmaker Misha Kumar scores with first two Indian films for FIFA with contrasting flavors
â€˜Captain Fantastic,â€™ a new film on Indian football legend and current captain Sunil Chhetri is making waves for its intimate portrayal of a man who hates to lose â€” even at a friendly game of carrom at home.
From Indiaâ€™s biggest cricket icon Virat Kohli, to Bollywood superstar Kartik Aaryan, to even the Indian Prime Minister â€” a host of luminaries have given shout-outs to the three-part mini series made for FIFA+ by Delhi-based film maker Misha Kumar.
Featuring interviews with Chhetriâ€™s family, friends and mentors, the series tells the untold story of arguably Indiaâ€™s greatest football player with 84 goals under his belt, making him the third-highest currently active goal scorer of all time, behind only legends Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal (117) and Lionel Messi of Argentina (90).
Read: FIFA pays tribute to Indian â€˜Captain Fantasticâ€™ Sunil Chhetri (September 28, 2022)
â€œI am extremely humbled to have a docu-film capturing my lifeâ€™s story through the lens of the people who have made me who I am,â€ says an excited Chhetri himself, thanking the makers â€œfor bringing alive my life using such a creative and engaging narrative.â€
The Indian football icon hopes â€œthat this docu-film serves as an inspiration for the new generation of Indian footballers to serve the ultimate dream of making India a global football powerhouse.â€
Captain FantasticÂ can be viewed here.
This â€˜fly-on-the-wall sagaâ€™ is Kumarâ€™s second FIFA+ documentary on Indian football after â€˜Maitanamâ€™ â€” described as a 40-minute love letter to the game â€” released in May with six gripping stories from the Indian state of Kerala.
FIFA has now posted â€˜Maitanamâ€™ on YouTube for greater visibility, and to cash in on a new season of the Indian Super League, which kicked off in Kochi on Oct 7 with last season’s runners-up Kerala Blasters hosting East Bengal FC.
Fans can watch it here: Kerala’s SPECIAL relationship with football 🇮🇳 | Maitanam on FIFA+
Produced by Rise Worldwide, these are the first two Indian sports documentaries commissioned and released on FIFA+, a brand new OTT curated and run by footballâ€™s apex global body.
â€œItâ€™s for other people to comment on how good or bad the films are, but overall, the response has been positive,â€ says Kumar of his two directorial ventures.
â€œSo Iâ€™m very, very grateful, and still nursing a slight degree of disbelief at the privilege of having been able to do these two projects,â€ says Kumar, who has evolved from his early days as a sports journalist into an independent filmmaker, fiction and non-fiction writer and producer of live international sports programs.
The two films contrast in terms of their style and treatment.
Shot mostly outdoors, â€˜Maitanamâ€™ is very visual and colorful, capturing the incredible beauty of Kerala, even as it brings out the Malayali passion for the game in six little stories.
â€œThe Chhetri film was exactly the opposite, where I would say, not one hundred percent, but yeah, close to 90 percent of the film was shot indoorsâ€¦in peopleâ€™s houses, offices, whatever,â€ says Kumar.
â€œSo the challenge was to not make it into, well, almost a radio film where itâ€™s just the sound of people talking,â€ he says. â€œThe challenge was to somehow push the envelope and do something to make the film visually rich, visually engaging.â€
â€œAnd one of the things we did, and thatâ€™s something I am very proud of, is how we tackled the title sequence,â€ he says.
â€œAnd with some planning and the help of an amazing crew, we were able to, I think, make a very compelling opening title sequence, and devise an effective way to present Chhetriâ€™s incredible statistics.â€
So whatâ€™s next?
â€œI love sport, I love making sports documentaries, and I’m happy to keep doing them,â€ says Kumar. â€œBut I would like to broaden my horizons and work in other fields and other subjects as well as a filmmaker.â€
The American Bazaar caught up with Kumar for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of two riveting tales on Indian football with contrasting flavors and his plans for the future.
AB: Tell us how you came to be associated with the FIFA project.
MK:Â I have been working in the field of sports television for more than 20 years.Â A year or so ago, a friend of mine who Iâ€™ve worked with on numerous sports broadcasts contacted me out of the blue, and mentioned that he had two projects in hand, both of them related to football. He did not initially reveal that they were for FIFA+.
FIFA+ had not even launched as a platform at that time, so it was naturally confidential.
He asked me if I was free and willing to work on these projects. And one thing led to another and so I obviously said that I was very keen and interested in working on them.
So itâ€™s a journey that began in June 2021 that’s finally culminated now. I ended up being fortunate enough to make the first two FIFA+ documentaries produced out of India.
The first one was about football in Kerala, and was called â€˜Maitanam.â€™ And as the title suggests, it was about football in Kerala â€”six little stories that we cobbled together into a 40-minute film.
And now of course, the second one, which is about the life and times of arguably India’s greatest ever football player Sunil Chhetri, â€˜Captain Fantastic.â€™
So I feel very, very fortunate to have been given this opportunityâ€¦and so far, so good. The film seems to be receiving a lot of appreciation, a lot of love, for which I’m very very grateful. So thatâ€™s the answer.
AB: But how did you convince people that you had the credentials to make the films?Â
MK:Â Itâ€™s a very interesting question and a bit difficult to answer. As I mentioned, I have been in the field of sports broadcasting for more than 20 years.
But the work that I had done primarily related to actual production of live sports broadcasts – across sports, I mean cricket, boxing, volleyball, to name a few. Incidentally never football, as a matter of chance. And itâ€™s interesting, because I always wanted to direct films – whether they be documentaries or features.
But I donâ€™t know whether I had the credentials on paper to convince someone that I was the right person to do this. I had done a fair bit of direction, not necessarily the kind of direction that ends with a final title plate that says â€œdirected by Misha Kumar.â€
But I had directed some stuff, a very, very brief foray into fiction as well with some web videos for a cell phone company, and some corporate stuff too. But yes, in every other sense, this was my big directorial debut.
And yet, I felt confident in my own head that I would be able to deliver because I had the dream for many many years. But dreaming about something doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re qualified to actually realize that dream.
Nevertheless, as I said, a friend or professional colleague took a punt on me to propose my name for the project.
I suppose I was further able to convince his associates and colleagues that I was indeed the right person for the job. We went ahead and made these two films, and in all humility, the response has been positive.
Itâ€™s for other people to comment on how good or bad the films are, but overall the response has been positive. So again, very very grateful, and also a slight degree of disbelief at the privilege of having been able to do these two projects.
AB: What was your mandate from FIFA for the two films?
MK:Â My interactions were with Rise Worldwide, the production company in India that FIFA had entrusted these two projects to. And Rise then went ahead and made the films happen.
So my interactions were always directly with Rise and indirectly with FIFA, but in broad terms the initial ideas had to be approved by FIFA.
In that sense, these two ideas were proposed â€” a film about football in Kerala with some detailing, where we specified that these were the aspects of the stories that we would go ahead and chronicle.
Similarly, from a very early stage, we were clear that we were making a film about Sunil Chhetri. So it was more a matter of detailing how one would go about doing that, what the vision would be, what the approach would be, and then it was a matter of getting FIFA to sign off on that.
So itâ€™s always a little back-and-forth where, you know, the client suggests that you keep something, or add something, or remove something. But in all honesty, there was very, very little pushback, very few occasions, when someone said that what you were doing was wrong.
Actually, let me correct myself, there was no such occasion, when we were told that what you are doing is not right, or we are not confident about the film, or the direction, or the vision.
So the mandate from them was to make two good films about football in India, and of course, as I said, they had a veto on the actual subject matter. But there was not too much creative intrusion. It was a very liberating and rare feeling for a filmmaker.
AB: How did you conceptualize your approach to make what you call this â€˜fly-on-the-wall saga?â€™
MK:Â So again, it’s bizarre, because as I said, I was first approached in June 2021, which is now nearly one and a half years ago, and so it’s a little hard to try and re-capture or remember exactly how one started envisioning this.
But I will say that, in my head, at least for this film, and the reason I am mentioning my other film as well, I had a very clear picture of what the final product would look like, simply because I understood, at least in my head, what they needed.
For example, Kerala is a beautiful place and one of the key aspects of doing any film set there is to capture that beauty, I would say. So I understood very early that, for example, the film about Kerala would be extremely visual.
And we were fortunate because Kerala is a beautiful place and you know you have to be veryÂ incompetentÂ to not be able to capture that beauty. So in that sense one’s job was easier.
For the Chhetri film, we were very clear that it would be a case of Chhetri of course talking about his life, his near and dear ones, his parents, his sister, his friends, his wife of course, people who know him, professional colleagues.
So I knew that the Chhetri film would have a lot of talking, whereas, I mean you have sound bites in the Kerala film as well, but it is a distinctly visual film â€” and the visual aspect is informed by the fact that you are shooting in a beautiful part of the world.
In the Chhetri film, the challenge was to not make it intoâ€¦well, almost a radio film, where itâ€™s just the sound of people talking. Somehow we knew, the bulk of the film would be sound bites, quotes from Chhetri himself, and from people close to him.
And the challenge was to somehow push the envelope and not be just satisfied with that. To do something to make the film visually rich, visually engaging.
And one of the things we did, and thatâ€™s something I am very proud of, is how we tackled the title sequence. And also, if you have seen the film, various places where graphics and information about Chhetri appears. For example, all his ISL achievements. For example, where he stands on the all-time top 10 list of international active goal-scorers.
So that’s something that again I had a clear vision of. Something that I planned before I met Chhetri, before I even went to his house. And of course with the collaboration of my amazing crew â€” my Director of photography, assistant DOPs, lighting men and so on â€” we were able to I think make a very compelling opening title sequence. And the post-production team then did an amazing job of packaging all of that and making it pop.
And also a pretty unusual set of graphics made by our post team, where again, we could have chosen an easier and very predictable approach. I donâ€™t think anyone would have complained. But one chose to challenge oneself to do something new and I think it turned out well.
AB: This is your second film for FIFA. In what ways, did your approach differ for the two?
MK:Â So like I said, with Kerala, for example, it may sound like a very mundane difference, but I have already mentioned the location aspect of filming. In fact, itâ€™s very visual and colourful, and so on.
But one very interesting thing was, 90% of the film was shot outdoors, and I can literally count on my fingers, I think two or three small sequences that were shot indoors. For example, with Rufus Uncle, we shot some sequences inside his house.
And the Chhetri film was exactly the opposite, where I would say, not one hundred percent, but yeah, close to 90% of the film was shot indoors in peopleâ€™s houses, offices, whatever.
So obviously, for anyone that works in filmmaking, shooting outdoors and shooting indoors are different challenges. When you shoot indoors, you need aÂ lotÂ of lights, you know, just to make things look passable, to start with.
And then another layer to actually things look good, to make colours pop on camera, to make sure that people don’t look completely dead and sleep-deprived.
So there’s a different sort of challenge where again, I had long conversations with the director of photography and rest of the technical crew, and where we collectively decided what equipment weâ€™d use and exactly how we would go about lighting things and the kind of shots that we would go ahead with and make the cue.
So some of it was purely technical. Of course there was creativity as well. But I suppose there were some challenges that were purely technical. So yeah, thatâ€™s the difference.
AB: What challenges did you face in making the films in terms of resources, lining up the key people, getting old footage?
MK:Â We were actually very fortunate, because being the official documentary on Sunil Chhetri, obviously that opened a lot of doors.
I mean first to start with of course the man himself, with his wife, his parents, sister, brother-in-law, friends. Since we were the official sort-of partners and not random people saying, â€œSir, can we please do an interview with you,â€ obviously you receive a different level of cooperation thatâ€™s but natural.
But in terms of other associates, whether it be former players or former coaches, and so on, it was a mix of things. We had great collaborators. So you know, Rise themselves helped us get in touch with many, many other important people, commentators, former players, coaches, and so on.
One also used oneâ€™s own experience and network, having worked two decades in the industry, one was able to reach out to many people, if not directly, through other friends who had contacts. Reach out to again players, friends, coaches and so on.
Coming to the footage and pictures. Again pictures, our main source was the family. And I think literally we would – this is a funny thing – every two days, me or you know, one of my team members would WhatsApp Sunilâ€™s sister, his wife, his friend, someone or the other, saying, â€œCan you please send some more pictures, can you please send some moreÂ â€˜bachpan kiâ€™Â pictures?â€
And they were very, very kind and very, very patient and I think finally a point came when they said, well, now all the pictures of Sunil Chhetri that exist on the planet, we have given you â€”ab nahin milegaÂ â€” so, which is totally fair! I mean, you know, you can’t create these things.
And in terms of the archive footage, again, some of the footage was sourced on a commercial basis, some footage was acquired with an arrangement to give credits or acknowledgements. So again we were fortunate.
Again, we did not have a massive budget, but we had a decent enough budget to take care of at least some of the basic acquisitions first – which are very, very important when you’re doing, I would say a nonfiction documentary.
But particularly in sports, where obviously you want to see a particular player in action, you know, in his or her younger days. So we were fortunate. We didn’t getÂ everythingÂ that we wanted, but that was for multiple reasons, not just money.
In some cases, you know, we hit our deadlines before discussions were finalized. So we had to move on and sort of sacrifice a particular match or particular clip but by and large, we are fairly happy with what we managed to get.
AB: What next? What dream project do you have on the horizon?
MK:Â So in all honesty, I donâ€™t have a specific project either lined up, or you know, anything concrete that’s on the horizon.
There are very very preliminary discussions with various clients and stakeholders about things at the moment in the field of sports documentaries, but there’s really nothing concrete that one could share because there is nothing to share. I mean, I’m not not trying to be secretive.
In terms of a long-term goal, I really, really enjoyed my experience working on both these films, and I would love to do more such projects, not necessarily in sports.
Read: Captain Fantastic- FIFA pays tribute to Sunil Chhetri in 3 episode documentaryÂ (September 28, 2022)
The only sort of complaint I would have, is that the burden of experience is that, once you work for a certain number of years in a particular field, people tend to kind of pigeonhole you into that particular slot, and I think they assume that that’s the only thing that you can do.
Which is another reason why I’m very grateful for the fact that I was able to do these two films, because I don’t think too many people would’ve taken me seriously as a filmmaker without two actual projects under my belt to show peopleâ€¦because nobody wants to take a chance on a first-timer in that sense.
So having said that, I love sport, I love making sports documentaries and I’m happy to keep doing them. But I would like to broaden my horizons and work in other fields and other subjects as well as a filmmaker.